What I’m about to share isn’t rocket science. However, it is neuroscience.
Happiness is a practice, not just a personality trait. Sure, some people are just naturally upbeat and positive. They seem to see the good in everyone and the possibilities in every lousy situation. For those of us who are more “glass half empty” people, happiness can come from cultivating a deliberate practice of gratitude. If it’s true that “you get more of what you pay attention to,” practices that focus our attention on what we’re already grateful for will produce more gratitude-worthy experiences.
Having a positive attitude isn’t always easy. The world is a scary and unpredictable place. Much of what happens is out of our direct control. We each have our share of personal life challenges. And no matter how positive we try to be, there are those people in our lives who drain the positivity out of us every day.
Plus, there’s something called the negativity bias. As we scan our environments for threats and rewards, the threats loom much larger than the rewards. We can’t help it, it’s just the way our brains work. And this tendency has helped us survive as a species.
But it doesn’t necessarily make for a happy or healthy life. The more we pay attention to threats, the more we perceive them. And there are significant health consequences that come as a result of this level of chronic stress.
Conversely, feelings of joy, happiness and gratitude make for a much better life. Our immune systems get stronger. We're less susceptible to a whole array of diseases. And if we're happy, we make other people happy, causing a ripple effect.
There’s been a lot of recent neuroscience research about the ability of the brain to reorganize itself over one’s life by creating new neural pathways. It's called neuroplasticity. This happens as a result of what you pay attention to and what you practice. You can actually train your brain to perceive rewards more readily and thus counter the negativity bias.
One way to do this is to cultivate a regular habit of gratitude. On Thanksgiving morning, as I was writing in my journal, I thought, “How can I pay attention to what I’m grateful for every day instead of just on Thanksgiving?”
I came up with four questions that I’ve started reflecting on every day. Each question is rooted in neuroscience research. I won’t go into detail on that here but if you’re interested in learning more, email me and I’ll send you the references.
During the holiday season (and beyond) I encourage you to come up with your own gratitude questions. Then, answer them every day. Or feel free to borrow mine!
Here they are:
- What am I grateful for right now? (In this moment. See if you can reflect on the sensory details to further embed the memory)
- What do I want more of in my life today?
- What can I do to make a positive difference in my life today?
- What do I most want to remember about yesterday? (Again, recall the sensory details rather than just the idea.)